Tag Archives: April Fool

Book Review: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

There are occasions when I return to books that I’ve read in the past, particularly if I recall being fond of them without actually being able to recall the details of the book. It has been some years since I’ve read this much-acclaimed work from Eric Carle, so I came with a nagging fear that it wouldn’t live up to my memory of it, as has happened before, most notably with Jamaica Inn.

Though the title implies that the book is about a caterpillar, Carle opts to open with the backstory to the main character. One might expect, in keeping with modern trends, that he might have opted to put this into the middle of the book as a sort of flashback scene. His keeping to a linear timeline certainly appeals to me, as stories which jump back and forth generally annoy me. The only work I’ve read recently which employs such nonlinearity and which didn’t bug me was The Night Circus.

So it is that we first meet an egg. The egg is anonymous, but seems to symbolise a world of promise. Most readers should be able to guess what sort of egg it is, so it comes as little surprise that we swiftly move on from envisioning a panoply of possibilities and focus down to our main character, who is unimaginatively just called a caterpillar. The caterpillar has no name nor is there any indication of a family around it. Perhaps Carle means to imply that the caterpillar is an orphan, reflecting the troubles faced by children in a society where parents are increasingly absent, living as though they were orphans, having to make their own way in the world.

As well as the issue of parentlessness, the other main theme running through it is the greed of modern society. This is expressed by the caterpillar having an insatiable greed to consume all that it encounters, though some joker in the publishing department even put holes in the pages, as though to indicate that the caterpillar had eaten through the work. It seems a juvenile gesture that detracts from this work of allegory.

At times, though, that allegory is extremely strained as we move into absurdist modes when one considers what the caterpillar eats. We begin with an apple, which is just about believable, though more suited to a maggot than to a caterpillar, but we might forgive a little artistic license here. But it soon starts to stretch plausibility when we get into distinctly non-caterpillar type foods such as a piece of chocolate cake, a slice of salami and even a sausage!

One cannot but get the impression that having started with a clear vision, Carle’s writing ran away from him and he found himself getting into such absurdist nonsense. So at this point in the novel my attention began to drift and became hard to find the motivation to turn another page. It became repetitive and formulaic so one can anticipate beforehand that the caterpillar is only going to eat something else next.

At no point is there any dialogue or other characters against which we can compare the central figure. There seems to be rationale behind his actions. It may be a stroke of genius though, as on reflection it could be seen as a parody of consumerism, whereby we are all compelled to consume, to buy to want for things without ever having a good reason to do so. In which case the caterpillar is a mirror of you and of me, wanting things that are not natural to us, that serve no good purpose but which only sate us for a short while, before we move on again.

If that is the case, then it is strange to think that Carle chose a caterpillar for such a metaphor, as a swarm of locusts might have been the more logical choice.

Eventually, though, Carle brings the story back on track by having the caterpillar eat a green leaf. This seems to be the thing that tips the balance and at last the caterpillar is full (and a little nauseated). I couldn’t help but think that this was a tamer version of the “waffer thin mint” that finished off Mr Creosote.

I shan’t spoil for you exactly how the book ends, though those of you familiar with the life cycle of the caterpillar, you might be able to guess at what happens, even if the colouring is suspiciously psychedelic.

In conclusion, it’s a muddled work with moments of great joy and some utter confusion, with an undercurrent of social commentary that cannot be avoided. Not a terribly long novel, I managed to get through it within a week. It reminded me of a children’s book I read many years ago, though I can’t recall what that one was called.

One way road systems to be renamed “One Direction systems”

Used by creative commons. Picture by Elliott Brown

Used by creative commons. Picture by Elliott Brown

If ever there was any doubt of the pervasiveness of our shallow pop culture, it comes in the form of a new proposal that is set to be announced in the coming days from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in conjunction with the Department for Transport. A friend of mine who is a civil servant in the former (who shall remain nameless) has been authorised to ‘leak’ the news that in recognition of the commercial success of the boy band, One Direction, all road systems in England and Wales (and Scotland too, if the ‘no’ campaign is successful this September) that are currently designated as “one way systems” are to be renamed as “One Direction systems”.

Initially to be piloted in the home towns of the 4 English members of the band (Bradford, Wolverhampton, Holmes Chapel and Doncaster), the plan is for a 2 year trial period followed by a roll-out across the rest of the country.

The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, was said to have been up all night trying to think of an appropriate way to honour the success of the boy band. There had been half a heart towards merely honouring Harry Styles, by far the most famous member of the band, but to leave out the others might have given their mothers a heart attack. As one of those little things a government can do, it seemed irresistible, given the band’s widespread appeal.

Some could see it as a way to reach out to younger voters, though I am not convinced that many of their fans are old enough to vote. If it does prove to be a magic ticket for the Tories to appeal to a demographic which is not normally very pro-Conservative, then it may be a master stroke.

This blogger is not convinced by the proposals, but who knows what might change my mind. I’m not a fan of the band and I hardly think they will ever come up with the best song ever, though I think that of just about anything to come out of a talent show.

Embracing the homeopathic Eucharist

In conversation with a friend recently, the talk drifted towards our favourite topics of science and faith. Over the years, I have grown wary of talking about the two at the same time, as you are bound to annoy everyone while simultaneously deterring anyone from listening to the whole argument. But this recent conversation has prompted me to break down this wall; I hope you will follow the line of thought and take in the whole point.

The conversation began with a discussion around the terms we use for the symbolic meal of bread and wine at church. Coming from an unmistakeably baptist upbringing, I have always favoured the term ‘communion’. My friend, a catholic, was always used to using ‘mass’. We settled on a compromise, opting for the transliteration ‘Eucharist’. Naturally, the conversation turned to questions of symbolism, remembrance and the tricky idea of transubstantiation.

My friend was gracious enough to recognise that there was no physical transformation. I expected him to begin espousing the virtues of an appeal to the Aristotelian idea of ‘accidents’. I began to prepare my standard responses, that it’s an out-of-date philosophy with no grounding in reality, with my neat follow-up of an appeal to scientific realism to round things off. But something went wrong. He didn’t mention Aristotle or use anything resembling what I had expected. Instead, he took the scientific front foot.

His argument was roughly as follows: the blood of Jesus flowed through his veins when he handled the cup from which they drank and his hands touched the bread which was eaten. His blood vessels were already weak, as exemplified by his sweating blood later in the garden of Gethsemane. So it is likely that some small element of his blood did leach through into the wine and a few of his skin cells came from his hands onto the bread. So the first ‘Last Supper’ did have a real element of drinking his blood and eating his flesh. Yet it was in such small quantities that one could not compare it to the accusations that came from later Roman historians of cannibalism.

So far, so reasonable. But what struck me was the inference. Where else have we heard about the power of something in such negligible quantities. Well, I’m sure the title gives it away. I was astounded that I was following a line of thought that was parallel to that of homeopathy. Might it be that what we have come to think of as modern pseudoscience might actually be a rediscovery of something far more profound and actually based in reality.

My years of scientific education wanted to scream out and decry this as nonsense, but something held me back. Perhaps, because it has been a good few years since I set foot in a lab or jotted my thoughts on a giant blackboard in an empty tutorial room, I began to wonder if there might be more to science than the traditional methods to which I had grown accustomed. And you know me, if there’s one thing I’m sceptical of, it’s tradition.

It’s an unfinished enquiry, but an enticing idea. There is much to be pondered, but for now I am persuaded that it might just be worth tentatively embracing the homeopathic Eucharist.

Changing Rainbows

For many years schoolchildren have learned the mnemonic “Richard Of York Gave Battles In Vain” in order to learn the order of the colours of the rainbow. This gave rise to much confusion as to whether the G was for ‘Gave’ or ‘Gained’ which is also frequently used. The other aide-memoire, which I found more helpful, was to say that the rainbow was invented by a man named Roy G Biv.

All that may be about to change, however. Increasingly, the words indigo and violet have dropped out of common usage and replaced by the more catch-all term, purple. Under plans which are set to revealed by Michael Gove later this week, the national curriculum for young children is to be changed to reflect the more modern terminology.

The government’s position is backed by a MORI poll commissioned by the Liberal Democrat party. People were shown a series of colours and asked to identify them, followed by what they thought each symbolised. It is understood that the poll was initially commissioned as a way of researching how to rebrand the party in time for the next general election, when the party is expected to lose at a third of its seats including the Sheffield Hallam constituency of its leader [sic], Nick Clegg. However, the poll showed that the majority of people did not distinguish between indigo and violet. Instead, purple was, by virtue of Cadbury’s identified with chocolate.

An unnamed source within the Liberal Democrat party was quoted as saying, “Most people like chocolate, so it will be helpful for the party to be associated with something they like.” When it was pointed out that UKIP already use purple as one of their main colours, the Liberal Democrat noted that UKIP also incorporate yellow into their colour scheme, which the Liberal Democrats have no intention of using beyond 2014.

The planned move has not been without its critics, however. Many horticulturalists are adamant that indigo and violet are wholly different colours. A spokesman from the Royal Horticultural Society, Draco Romper, said, “Indigo and violent are from completely different ends of the spectrum. They are nothing alike.”

What other changes might this cause? I’m sure the makers of Parma Violets may be given cause for concern, though I don’t think Parma Purples sound too bad. If only they could make them taste nice.

As for the mnemonics, please feel free to post suggestions.